It’s very difficult to ‘be different’ when you play the gentlemen’s game
The recent exposure of systemic racism in Yorkshire cricket, as well as harrowing stories of discrimination during South Africa’s own inquest into racism in cricket, underlines the sport’s problem with all forms of diversity.
West Indian cricketer Tino Best tells a story about Hashim Amla. In 2007, both men were part of a contingent that travelled to Wales to play in a charity tournament. At the dinner that followed the afternoon matches, Amla found himself seated at a table beside a cricketer who enjoyed his alcohol. No one would have minded if the player just enjoyed his wine or whatever he was drinking.
“Just have one sip, it won’t hurt you,” the player repeatedly said to Amla for the better part of the night. Each time the player accosted him, Amla responded as all who have watched him over the years have come to expect, with humility and respect: “Sir, I don’t drink. Thank you, but, no, I don’t drink.”
But it wasn’t enough for Amla to politely decline the drink and the player kept insisting, trying to get him to break his religious beliefs and take a sip “to fit in”. Drinking is part of cricket culture and so-called post-match “fines meetings” are just drinking ceremonies.
Adam Zampa is not your average suburban professional sportsperson. He has never quite fit the image of the idealised cricketing stereotype – macho to the very edge of chauvinism, tall, white, Waspy, a jocular sense of humour honed in elite schooling and an unshakeable sense of entitlement.
Zampa is a little different. He’s a vegan who just happens to make his own coffee, has a unique fashion sense and is touchy-feely with those he is close to. He is, as Australia coach Justin Langer put it after the T20 World Cup, “a little hippy”. One can be forgiven for thinking that Langer meant hippy in the way that one may use “tree-hugger” to describe someone.
In 2019, Aussie James Faulkner shared a picture of himself, his mother and his friend Rob Jubb on Instagram. The caption read: “Birthday dinner with the boyfriend (best mate!!!) @robjubbsta and my mother @roslyn_carol_faulkner #togetherfor5years.”
Cricketers Glenn Maxwell and Shaun Tate were among the people who commented, praising his “great courage” to come out. But Faulkner is not gay; it was a mere misunderstanding. Cricket Australia said the caption had been “misinterpreted” and that it was “a joke that has been taken out of context”.
But there is no misunderstanding in that it takes great courage to come out. This is probably why, after English cricketer Steven Davies came out publicly in 2011, no other male cricketer has come out as openly gay when he was still playing.
West Indian fast bowler Shannon Gabriel received a four-match ban for asking English cricketer Joe Root: “Do you like boys?” It was meant to be a sledging remark. In the West Indies, it is quite the insult to call someone a “chichi man”, a derogatory term for gay men.
It is very difficult to be different in cricket.
‘Othering’ is rife
If you followed this year’s Social Justice and Nation-Building (SJN) hearings or the recent revelations of institutional racism at Yorkshire cricket, you will find that the stories follow a pattern. Players who look different, speak differently and act differently, are treated differently. They are “othered”.
“Othering” is when we choose to impose very narrow guidelines to define who qualifies as a full member of a group or collective. A lot of the time it is a knee-jerk reaction to change. It is not about liking or disliking someone, but, in most instances, it is the precursor to disliking others as it provides a platform for exclusion.
It is a conscious or unconscious assumption that “different” is bad or defective and could pose a threat to a select group.
Former Proteas spinner Aaron Phangiso shared his experiences at the SJN hearings of being “othered”. When he was coming through the system at Titans, then known as Northerns, he watched as white players leapfrogged him while he was told to be content “that his time would come”. This was despite his consistent performance and captaining the B side. The only time he got a chance to play first-team cricket was when a fellow player of colour was either injured or had suffered a lean patch.
“Back in the day, an African player would replace an African player,” Phangiso told DM168. “So if there’s an African player who’s doing well for that team for a specific period of time, another black African player, who might be doing well for the B side and deserves to play, is going to take a backseat. The thinking was, ‘We only require one, so we’re going stick with one.’ Those kinds of things happened a lot.”
Not just that, but sometimes it happened that, after a black African player was selected, they were given the least responsibility in the side. In 2019, Neo Felane suffered the humiliating experience of playing as a specialist fielder during a tournament.
In 2005, Phangiso broke down in tears after he was asked to bowl only five overs out of more than 110 overs bowled by Northerns in a match.
“I was on the field for three days and I didn’t bowl much,” says Phangiso. “You will just be there as a number. There are times when one would take to the field and not do the discipline one specialises in. It makes you doubt yourself and your abilities.”
These things happened because black Africans did not fit the image of the sport or how certain people viewed the sport. This is why Basil D’Oliviera couldn’t play for South Africa – he didn’t fit the idealised image.
Loots Bosman testified at the SJN hearings that, when he was coach of the Northern Cape side, he was criticised for fielding a side with eight black players. He was accused of trying to create “another Zimbabwe”. His team did not fit the idealised image of a South African team.
Like in England, South African cricketers are developed through the elite schools system and, for a long time, only white South Africans had access to these schools. The “ideal team”, therefore, was predominantly white.
To say that cricket has a racism problem is to give only a partial picture. Cricket doesn’t just have a racism problem, it has always had a diversity problem. Conversations with female cricketers who have been abused for being cricket-playing women are common.
Cricket has always been an elitist or exclusionary sport. The English gentry and aristocracy made the working class feel unwelcome. The reference to cricket as being “a gentleman’s game” is not because the players abide by a gentlemanly code of conduct, whatever that is.
Rather, it is because English gentlemen, the upper class, wanted a sport that they participated in alone, away from the riff-raff, the lower classes.
Women, black people and members of the LGBTQIA+ community have also been made to feel like outsiders. The stories that came out at the SJN hearings are just a variation of the othering that exists within the sport.
But in some spaces things are changing. For instance, Phangiso feels that South Africa is on the right track to becoming a more diverse cricketing nation.
“Things have changed a lot,” he said. “A lot of things have improved.”
The people who are coming through are growing up in a more diverse world. There is a growing appreciation of talent, regardless of race or background.
For modern generations, the shock is not in diversity, it is in the lack of diversity. Their world is very different from the one their predecessors lived in. Diversity, not exclusion, is the new normal.
Maybe that’s why things are better. Or maybe it is because others now know better.
In his submission to the SJN, Proteas coach Mark Boucher stated that he had taken part in certain “exclusionary” activities because he didn’t know better at the time.
This happens a lot. But when we know better, we do better.
Whatever the reason, the understanding of what an ideal cricketer looks like is different; it’s no longer confined to a single race or sex in the minds of most people.
And as the dust settles on the SJN hearings and Yorkshire’s inquest, the hope is that they serve as reminders of creating a more inclusive sport and society. There is still a way to go before cricket completely rid itself of othering. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.
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